Before we fully launch into a new lectionary and church year with the Gospel of Mark there is one last thing I would like to share with you regarding the Gospel of Matthew, with whom has been the emphasis for the past year. But not to worry, it is short and I will get to the gospel reading of today presently. The last line of Matthew is perhaps one of my favorite verses in all of scripture. Jesus says to His disciples, “And remember I am with you always”. I cannot tell you how many times that line has lifted my spirits and given me both peace and joy. I think it is because in it I get a double meaning of “always”. It of course means for all time, but for me it also means in all respects, in all circumstances, in all ways. I just thought I might share that with you and hope that at some time it might give you a certain peace and joy as well.
Now I do have one more, brief caveat before the sermon, but this does have to do with the gospel reading today. An Anglican clergy colleague of mine sent me an email this past week asking me if I could perform a funeral service as he was going to be out of town. I emailed him back telling him that I could not as I was busy here with our own Christmas activities. I also said, obviously knowing that he would be aware of the gospel reading for today, that in preparation for the sermon I was writing I had been eating locusts and wild honey all week. Then I added, just kidding, I hate wild honey. To which he replied, you should try locusts with sour cream and hot sauce, it makes them taste just like chicken. Well, I’ll have to get back to my colleague on that one.
The Gospel of Mark is remarkable for a number of reasons but I am going to mention two of them here. First, it is the only Gospel to use the word ‘Gospel’ or good news. Second, and certainly more significantly, it is believed by many to be the first Gospel written even though it comes second in the cannon of the New Testament. This latter point is quite a notable achievement if you think about it. Before Mark there was no literary form known as a gospel. The world had never seen anything quite like it. It is part story, part biography, part history, part epic hero tale and, of course, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In short, the Gospel writer of Mark pioneered this form and for this fact alone I think we can be appreciative and thankful for this.
I also find the opening to the Gospel of Mark, which we heard today, quite arresting. It immediately grabs your attention with its robust introduction. It gives the reader the strong sense that the whole world has been moving toward this one point in time, the life of Jesus, and that everything and everyone after this point will look back, they will define themselves as being after this event. And as the calendar bears down on the end of 2014 we can say the gospel writer was somewhat prophetic in this regard.
The Gospel then quotes Isaiah’, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”. The gospel writer uses this quote because of his or her feeling that Israel had for some time prior to this point been in a metaphorical wilderness in that there were no signs from God or any prophets to speak the words of God. In a sense Israel had its ear firmly placed to the Holy One waiting for a sign. They were waiting for a message of their self worth, waiting for a voice that would promise their deliverance. And out of that wilderness comes John the Baptist, a man with a mission, who says, “Prepare the way of the Lord”.
“Prepare the way of the Lord” is also one of my favorite lines from scripture. Believe it or not I actually don’t have too many favorite lines, but today I get a kind of wonderful double whammy. “Prepare the way of the Lord” is special to me because of three exceptional memories. Quite a number of years ago now I was once lucky enough to see an outstanding production of the musical Godspel. The opening saw the actor playing John the Baptist walk down the isle where the audience was sitting with a bucket of water and a sponge. He was singing the opening line, “Pre pare ye the way of the lord”, and he was very liberally dowsing members of the audience with water. It was a marvelously energetic production and from then on I had always wanted a chance to direct the musical – and then I did get my chance. In my last year of VST I directed the Musical Godspel with a cast of students and professors and it was a great highlight in my time there.
The other memory is more personal but it is connected with the first one and I would like to share it with you. My conversion to Christianity was for the most part a slow process. This is in large part due to the fact that I am thick, slow and stubborn when it comes to change, particularly when it comes to big changes. However there were moments of revelation and I am about to describe one of them for you. For a long period of time I was struggling with the reality of Christ. How could I be a Christian, particularly if I was thinking about seeking a role of leadership in the church, if I was not sure about the Godship of Jesus? I was always looking at it from the perspective of what if it isn’t true. Wouldn’t I be a fool to believe in something that wasn’t true? Then one day quite, quite out of the blue I was cleaning a crystal bowl when the though popped into my head, “What if it is true”? I had never thought of it from that perspective before. What if it is true? I just about dropped the crystal bowl, I had to sit down. I literally had to sit down and think this thought through. For the next few hours I had to process what this would mean to me. At the end of it I decided that this idea, that Christ is the incarnate Son of God, if true, would change everything for me. It would change my view of history, my concept of humanity, my philosophical beliefs, my perception of the universe itself; all of it would radically change my perspective. It would, in the end, change me and my direction in life. And at the end of my thinking on this I heard very distinctly in the back of my head the same opening line from that first Godspel production. “Pre pare ye the way of the Lord”.
In the very next few days I found myself in church for the first time in quite a while. And I recall the minister at one point saying, “This is the good news of Jesus Christ”. Now I must confess that this was before I knew the English words ‘good news’ was a translation of the Greek word ‘gospel’, but I remember thinking to my self in light of the experience I had the day before that ‘good news’ was quite an understatement. ‘Good news’, was my niece’s soccer team winning their first game after fifteen losses in a row, good news was finding the tissue paper in your pant pocket before you put it into the washing machine, good news was going to the car mechanic and him saying, “the drive belt just needed tightening, no problem and no charge” – well now I’m exaggerating because of course that never happens, but you get the idea. The news that the Son of God came into the world wasn’t just good I thought, it was great news; it was outstandingly wondrous news, it was the kind of news that would change the world. And it did change the world, and continues to change it to this day for us Christians and for evermore.
Looking back on that time in my life I would have to say that I was in a kind of wilderness. And this is one of the reasons why I now like the season of advent so much. It is a time where hope renews itself. We all have our doubts and fears and anxieties about our personal lives, our community and our world. But around this time of year we get to dream out loud again. We get to prepare the way for light, love, peace and justice. We get to light the advent candles which one by one draws us closer to the good news, the truly good news of Jesus Christ, the giver of life, the Prince of Peace, the promise of truth, Emanuel.
Today we lit the Advent candle of peace. I don’t know of any greater peace than that found in the knowledge that God’s love for us is real and with that love God walks with us on our journey. My wish and prayer for all of you in this season of Advent is that the sails of your ship may be filled, guided and inspired by the power of the Holy Sprit throughout the year, and that you live in the peace and the joy and the love that God intends for you. And as we prepare the way of our Lord let us gladly open the Christmas card Jesus sends to each and every one of us this time of year. On the front of the card is the brilliant star of Bethlehem and as we open it we read its beautiful life affirming and ever-radiant message – it says, “Remember, I am with you always”. Amen.